Forbidden Fruit [The Best Movies of 1996]

From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1997). — J.R.

Compiling a list of the best new (or “new”) movies that opened in Chicago in 1996, I’ve come up with 40 titles, half of which are foreign-language pictures. Many of my colleagues would regard choosing so many foreign movies as perversely esoteric, but it’s hard for me to fathom why. I willingly concede that this country has one of the strongest national cinemas in the world — probably the greatest, which is fully reflected in my including 19 American films in my list and only 5 from France; 3 from Taiwan; 2 apiece from England, Hong Kong, and Iran; and 1 each from mainland China, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Vietnam.

Of course I haven’t seen nearly as many non-American films as American, but I’ve made a stab at seeing those that have made it to Chicago. I have long been bewildered by how the majority of my colleagues almost never mention any cinema that isn’t English-language when they draw up their end-of-the-year lists. Is American cinema really that wonderful and non-American cinema really that awful? Of course not; the reason most reviewers don’t include foreign pictures on their lists is that they don’t see them.… Read more »

In Defense of Non-Masterpieces

From the April 17, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Eighteen Springs

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Ann Hui

Written by John Chan

With Leon Lai, Wu Chien-lien, Anita Mui, Ge You, Annie Wu, and Huang Lei.

I don’t know exactly what I think about Ann Hui’s 12th feature, playing twice this weekend at the Film Center. At this point I don’t think it’s a masterpiece — though that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t see it. Arriving at these two conclusions is something of a professional necessity for me, because whenever I write a long review for this paper I have to assign the film a certain number of stars; if you look at the box headed “film ratings” the meaning of those ratings is spelled out, from “masterpiece” (four stars) to “worthless” (none). But sometimes this necessity presents me with a dilemma, because my better instincts tell me that it’s often impossible to know immediately after seeing a film whether it’s a masterpiece or not. And while I’m at it, let me confess to another doubt, one that relates to the general inflation of rankings that infects my profession, whether critics are reviewing a Hollywood blockbuster or a Hong Kong art movie: I fear that if I tell people that Ann Hui’s Eighteen Springs (or the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski) is only “worth seeing,” a lot of them won’t bother to go — even if maybe some of them should, for their benefit, not mine.… Read more »

The Last Days Of Disco

From the Chicago Reader (May 13, 1998). — J.R.


It’s remarkable how over the course of just three nightlife features — Metropolitan, Barcelona, and this comedy set in the early 1980s — writer-director Whit Stillman has created a form of mannerist dialogue as recognizable as David Mamet’s, a kind of self-conscious, upper-crust Manhattan gab reeking of hairsplitting cultural distinctions. Fortunately, this time around the Ivy League characters project less of a glib sense of entitlement, making them more fun to watch, and Stillman himself gives more evidence of watching rather than simply listening. The characters include two young women in publishing (Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale) who find a flat together, their roommate (Tara Subkoff), an employee at the club where they hang out (the always interesting Chris Eigeman), a fledgling ad executive (Mackenzie Astin), a junior assistant district attorney (Matt Keeslar), and a lawyer (Robert Sean Leonard). Stillman does interesting things with all of them. 113 min. (JR)

TheLastDaysofDiscoRead more »

Chantal Akerman: The Integrity of Exile and the Everyday

I’m still recovering from the rude shock of hearing about the death of Chantal Akerman this morning (October 6, 2015).

The following was originally published in Retrospektive Chantal Akerman, a publication of the Viennale/Austrian Filmmuseum, 2011, and the second issue of the online Lola (, 2012. — J.R.

Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man [sic]. — Flannery O’Connor

If I have a reputation for being difficult, it’s because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday. — Chantal Akerman

A yearning for the ordinary as well as the everyday runs through Akerman’s work like a recurring, plaintive refrain. It is a longing that takes many forms: part of it is simply her ambition to make a commercially successful movie; another part is the desire of a self-destructive, somewhat regressive neurotic — Akerman herself in Saute ma ville (1968), La chambre (1972), Je, tu, il, elle (1974), and L’homme à la valise (1983); Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975); Aurore Clement in Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978); Circé Lethem in Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles (1993) — togo legit and be like “normal” people.… Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). Perhaps my biggest error in this review is my assumption that all the leading characters in Metropolitan are male. — J.R.


The second comedy feature (1994) of neocon writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), who shares with Eric Rohmer a talent for literate and witty dialogue and a fascination with photogenic young women but has a somewhat less confident sense of milieu and story construction. As in Metropolitan, the leading characters and principal source of amusement are wealthy, self-absorbed, and virtually interchangeable American males (in this case a salesman and his cousin, a naval officer), though here they’re transplanted to the Barcelona jet-set nightclub scene, where they explain to their girlfriends and each other (as well as to the audience) how misinformed the Spanish are about the U.S. Considering how successfully they seem to colonialize all the young Spanish women in sight, regarded by heroes and movie alike as obliging pieces of furniture, one subtext seems to be that Europeans are basically first-draft Americans hungrily awaiting stateside revision. Still, this is fairly amusing stuff — brittle, fresh, and impudent –if you can stomach all the upscale arrogance. With Taylor Nichols, Chris Eigeman, Tushka Bergen, Mira Sorvino, Pep Munne, and Hellena Schmied.… Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (August 10, 1990). Even though this is favorable, I think I underestimated the achievement of this first feature; reseeing it a quarter of a century later, in preparation for a very enjoyable public Skype conversation with Whit Stillman held at the Gene Siskel Film Center, it looked much better and much richer, and the tenderness shown towards almost all of the characters is indelible. — J.R.


Whether it’s “accurate” or not, Whit Stillman’s crafty independent feature about wealthy Park Avenue teenagers and a middle-class boy who joins their ranks over one Christmas vacation is certainly well imagined, and impressively acted by a cast of newcomers (including Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Christopher Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, and Elizabeth Thompson). The simple but offbeat form of the film — which concentrates mainly on a series of social gatherings among a circle of friends, separated by fade-outs — has its awkward moments, but the charm of the actors and the wit and freshness of the dialogue (which touches on such subjects as Jane Austen, romance, and class consciousness) keep one interested (1990). (Fine Arts)

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Global Discoveries on DVD: Mostly about Extras

My DVD column for the Fall 2015 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.

Practically speaking, we should invent our own extras, not necessarily or invariably depend on those that are made on our behalf. To cite four examples of what I mean:


(A) According to normal usage, Icarus Film’s DVD of Frederic Choffat and Vincent Lowy’s 44-minute Marcel Ophuls and Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais contains no extras. But according to my own usage, this DVD itself functions as an extra to a 100-page book that I own, Dialogue sur le cinéma: Jean-Luc Godard & Marcel Ophuls, published by Le Bord de l’Eau in 2011. That book, prefaced by short essays by Vincent Lowy and André Gazut and concluded by Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s essay for Le Monde, ‘Mon ami Godard’, transcribes two encounters between Godard and Ophüls, held in 2002 and 2009 (the first of these focusing more on Marcel’s father Max), whereas the DVD includes most (but not all) of the second of these dialogues, and somehow manages to leave out some of the more interesting parts, either through cuts or incomplete subtitles. Which doesn’t mean that Icarus’s release isn’t worth having — only that its contents are worth contextualizing beyond the material offered by Icarus.… Read more »

Crimes of Passion [POISON]

From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 1991). — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Todd Haynes

With Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman, Scott Renderer, James Lyons, John R. Lombardi, Tony Pemberton, and Andrew Harpending.

“The whole world is dying of panicky fright,” reads the title that opens Todd Haynes’s startling and original Poison. It’s a correct and judicious observation, one that helps to “explain” a fascinating and provocative movie, particularly if one sees it alluding directly to the specter of AIDS.

But if one starts to enumerate the symptoms produced by panicky fright in our culture, I’m afraid that the usual set of liberal grievances — greed, intolerance, xenophobia, repression, classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, war fever, and flag waving — doesn’t quite exhaust them. Some of the most cherished and least controversial emblems of postmodernist discourse — irony, stylistic pastiche, and a foreshortened sense of history and politics, all of which are usually employed together — may be symptoms of panicky fright as well. While the list of liberal grievances points to a fear of the world (especially the social world) as it is, postmodernist discourse suggests a fear of discourse (especially art) as it used to be and as it might be once again — a fear of unambiguous self-expression that implies another way of refusing to confront the present directly.… Read more »

Food, Sex, and Death [TAMPOPO]

One of my first long reviews for the Chicago Reader (September 11, 1987). — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Juzo Itami

With Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Koji Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, Nobuo Nakamura, and Mariko Okada.

True, we eat to preserve ourselves from dying. But cooking, the moment of preparing foods . . . is a pause in the most relentless of natural processes, a moment when the process is retarded, when the food exists as itself, no longer a dead thing, not yet assimilated to a living thing. It exists in a moment out of time, and can therefore become a source of esthetic pleasure–small, fleeting, often deceptive, yet a true esthetic object. So brief is its moment of objectivity, this bit of food, that it quivers with the life it came from and with the life it goes toward–and yet, always, it partakes of a stillness that transforms time. The raw stuff has become food–worked upon, transformed by love and care, made proper with a name–and it is a part, if of a stew, of all other stews ever made and ever yet to be made. It partakes of the true Platonic stew. It is a miracle made by a cook to circumvent decay and death, in the quiet knowledge that the task is impossible.Read more »

Art of Darkness Jacques Tourneur’s WICHITA

From the Chicago Reader (December 5, 2003); also reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I’m delighted to report that Wichita became available on DVD, and in the correct CinemaScope format, in 2009. — J.R.


**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Written by Daniel B. Ullman

With Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Walter Coy, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Jack Elam, and Mae Clarke.

One reason why Jacques Tourneur (1904-1977) remains a major but neglected Hollywood filmmaker is that elusiveness is at the core of his art. A director of disquiet, absence, and unsettling nocturnal atmospheres whose characters tend to be mysteries to themselves as well as to us, he dwells in uncertainties and ambiguities even when he appears to be studiously following genre conventions. In other words, his brilliance isn’t often apparent because he tends to stay in the shadows. As with Carl Dreyer, it took me years to fully appreciate the textures of his work, but now I can’t get enough of his films.

A case in point is Wichita (1955), Tourneur’s first film in CinemaScope and possibly the most traditional of all his westerns, showing in LaSalle Bank’s classic film series this Saturday.

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Mind Wide Open

I can’t recall when this was written or what occasioned it (apart from the initial reviews of Eyes Wide Shut when it opened in 1999). — J.R.

Much of the negative critical response to Eyes Wide Shut came from indignant New Yorkers who felt their city had been misrepresented — worst of all, by a native of the Bronx and onetime Manhattan resident who had dared to expatriate himself. “It’s difficult to make a movie about a city you last set foot in 35 years ago,” J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice, sidestepping the hypothesis that Kubrick’s last film might be about something else — some elusive, shifting city of the mind, perhaps, as shared by the fearful dreams and imaginations of a married couple. Similarly, Stuart Klawans’ complaint in The Nation that he couldn’t buy “a Village jazz club with a tuxedoed headwaiter and a last set ending at midnight” overlooks the possibility that Kubrick couldn’t either, any more than he could believe in an intersection in that same Village of Miller and Wren — two nonexistent streets even when he lived in the city.

The film is full of such “off” details, and not simply because all of it was shot in an English studio.… Read more »

Looking for Nick Ray [upgraded, 1/23/2012]

From the December 1981 issue of American Film. I was quite unhappy with the way this article was edited at the time, but having discovered my original submitted draft quite recently (in mid-November 2011, 30 years later), I’ve decided to resurrect it here, including my own title. (Theirs was “Looking for Nicholas Ray”.)

My working assumption in restoring original drafts on this site, or some approximation thereof, isn’t that my editors were always or invariably wrong, or that my editorial decisions today are necessarily superior, but, rather, an attempt to historicize and bear witness to my original intentions. It was a similar impulse that led me to undo some of the editorial changes made in the submitted manuscript of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), when I was afforded the opportunity to reconsider them for the book’s second edition 15 years later (now out of print, but available online here) — not to revise or rethink my decisions in relation to my subsequent taste but to bring the book closer to what I originally had in mind in 1980. – J.R.

By and large, the last three decades in the life of film director Nicholas Ray can be divided fairly evenly into three distinct parts.… Read more »

Dream Masters II: Tex Avery

From Film Comment (January-February 1975).  An expanded version of an entry for Richard Roud’s 1980, two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. (“Dream Masters I,” incidentally, which appeared in the same issue of Film Comment, is devoted to Walt Disney — a much longer essay that can be accessed here.) I was delighted to receive a handwritten letter of thanks from Avery himself sometime after this was published which I still have in one of my scrapbooks. And, for the record, despite my gripes here about the unlikeliness of a Paul Fejos Festival, I did actually attend a Paul Fejos retrospective at the Viennale in 2004, almost 30 years after this was written. — J.R.

Paris, late January, my deadline a week away (later postponed).Read more »

Dream Masters I: Walt Disney (Part Two)

This is the second and final part of an article published in the January-February 1975 Film Comment. — J.R.


Towards an aesthetic evaluation. For critics of the Thirties and the early Forties, Disney was an essential figure in the arts. Eisenstein declared him to be the most interesting filmmaker in America, and over the decade that followed, Erwin Panofsky praised the early cartoons and “certain sequences” in the later ones as “a chemically pure distillation of cinematic possibilities”; Gilbert Seldes offered many sympathetic critiques; and even E.M. Forster published a brief tribute to Mickey Mouse. Lewis Jacobs’ assessment of Disney in The Rise of the American Film is certainly more likely to raise eyebrows today than it was in 1939:

“In the realm of films that combine sight, sound, and color Disney is still unsurpassed. The wise heir of forty years of film tradition, he consummates the cinematic contributions of Méliès, Porter, Griffith, and the Europeans [sic]. He has done more with the film medium since it added sound and color than any other director, creating a form that is of great and vital consequence not only for what it is but for what it portends.… Read more »

Dream Masters I: Walt Disney (Part One)

From Film Comment (January-February 1975). Although this is obviously dated in many respects, and most likely contains some errors, I’ve made only a few revisions while transcribing it. Given the length, I’ve decided to post this in two parts, with the second part to be posted later today.

This is a much-expanded entry written originally for Richard Roud’s two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980). It was mainly researched while I was still living in Paris in the mid-1970s, and I can recall having had lots of difficulties attending various kids-only screenings of Disney cartoon features, and convincing various theater managers that my interests were strictly scholarly and I wasn’t a dirty old man. — J.R.

In some respects, there may be no cultural figure in the West as potentially controversial as Walt Disney,  even though love and hatred for what Disney represents are frequently felt by the same people. At the same time, there is certainly no other filmmaker whose aesthetic and ideological preoccupations have permeated so much of modern life that, paradoxically, his omnipresence verges on invisibility. Even beyond the grave, continuing manifestations of his vision have become some integral to American society that they are commonly regarded as natural and relatively unquestioned parts of the landscape, like a salt shaker or a babysitter or a place to go on vacation.… Read more »